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Inocente: Mixing Tragedy and Hope on Canvas

“Out there in the world, things aren’t usually so colorful,” remarks Inocente, the star of the recent documentary Inocente. The film traces the story of Inocente, a 15-year-old artist living in San Diego. Her art drips and oozes with neon, fantastical colors, spurting scenes of happiness and exploding with positive imagery. Yet Inocente’s art is an example of art that doesn’t necessarily reflect the biography of the artist. That’s because Inocente is homeless. In the past nine years, her family has never lived in one place for more than three months. And no one knows. The kids at her school don’t know, and no one who views her art would ever guess that beneath the neon colors lies a story of abuse and darkness.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] Inocente is a 15-year-old artist and the star of a documentary about homelessness and depression.[/caption]

Even Inocente herself is masked in swirls and whirls of blacks, reds, turquoises, and pinks. Her makeup spills out from behind her brown eyes, covering the rest of her face. Her jeans are paint splattered, her Converse worn through and decked out with funky laces. In many ways, she looks like the typical artsy teenager, teen angst and Hot Topic mixed in with the mini skirts and clunky jewelry.Yet the same giddily dressed teenager confesses, “I felt like giving up many times in the past to the point of suicide, but I’m still waiting for that one day that will change my life.” Beneath Inocente’s art and her decorated appearance lurks a troubling past, and a present that continues to test her will to survive. Inocente’s mother cleans houses, and while she collects bottles for spare cash, she tells the viewer that she saw the United States as a paradise. Yet years later, the illegal family never knows how long they will be able to afford an apartment. And Inocente blames herself for the abuse she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her father. While Inocente discusses the story of her abuse, and the camera zooms in on a sinister picture of her father, a slightly transparent image of Inocente painting overlays her dark past, conveying her ability to move beyond her past to a more hopeful place.

Inocente’s suicidal past gives new meaning to her statement: “My life depends on me being an artist.” It seems that her life literally depends on creating and finding joy in destruction. It is this joy in living that helps Inocente convince her mother not to commit suicide. “Come,” Inocente’s mother implored her when Inocente was 11 years old. “Let’s go to that bridge and we’ll both jump into the sea. I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want to hear you cry.”

And Inocente’s mother’s wish is granted: she does not see Inocente’s tears. Inocente cries at the camera, but not in front of her mother. She hasn’t let her mother touch her in years. “I would like to tell her a lot of beautiful things,” her mother confesses. These sentiments are never expressed. Inocente’s relationship with her mother remains silent and strained, cold and inexpressive.

Inocente, like the colors she paints, is a rich, layered and enigmatic character.  Despite her loud colors and flamboyant dress, she is often silent, and thus invisible to those around her. She is invisible to her mother, and unrecognized by the world. “Invisibility is like a sword, cutting through the bones,” Inocente says in a slam poem she recites to an audience full of everyone else’s parents but her own. Yet Inocente is a fiery spirit. The viewer watches her sit on a bus as she narrates about how she feels the most freedom when she goes to places alone. Ultimately, Inocente manages to ignore the opinions of those around her, and use her past to help her move to a safer place, and a better future.

Ironically, for someone who has seen a darker side of life, Inocente’s name comes from the word innocence. Yet in many ways, Inocente is still innocent: she is not jaded or pessimistic. She has a hopeful attitude, and believes with conviction in her journey forward, away from the past and present issues she deals with.

At the Rooftop Films’ screening of Inocente, the lively character of Inocente herself appeared in the flesh. A few years older than she is in the film, she seems more mature. She is calm and collected, and still flashes the same smile. She was thrilled to engage with the audience, en route to her private art show in New York the next night. Her face was not made up; her clothes were simple. The strange dialectic between the older Inocente in real life and the film’s version of the younger Inocente in many ways resembled the dialectic between the way Inocente views the world in her art, and the realistic, objective world, devoid of imagination.

Although Inocente’s art on the surface seems to be a mere portrayal of Inocente’s view of the world, it is in fact more conceptual than it lets on. One piece is composed of a heart divided or broken over two canvases. Another piece, “The Lost Planet,” is about the experience of growing up, and of loss. A pool of colors laps the feet of the mountains of the lost planet, a place where rules of realistic color and shape do not operate. The painting, which gives the viewer insight into Inocente’s brain, freed from conventionality and normalcy, is about the loss of innocence, and the shattering of dreams. Inocente believes that all of her dreams are banished to this lost planet, where they congregate and swirl in a lively, colorful way, creating new colors, shapes, and imagery.

In under 50 minutes, directors and producers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine manage to create a lively portrait of a girl struggling for survival in a world that often misunderstands lost girls like her. The director also raises awareness about ARTS (A Reason to Survive), the organization that allows Inocente to host her own solo show, which gives Inocente more of a public image and allows her art to be seen and purchased by many. Yet the filmgoer gets the sense that even the visitors to the show perhaps do not truly see what Inocente, or her paintings, are about.

“If only they could see,” recites Inocente. “The colors I carry with me are the colors of life.” For Inocente, her colors, her bright neon hues, are what life is really all about.  The dark colors used by the director in the scene of her abusive past have been banished, perhaps to a lost planet of nightmares. Instead, her life is composed of the beautiful things her mother wishes she could express.

“Why can’t you love me for who I am and play with me in the colors of life?” Inocente asks. And after learning Inocente’s story, the viewer wants to love Inocente and to understand her, to delve deep into her colorful story and help her create.

Because ultimately, the viewer is given a glimpse into Inocente’s purpose: “I have a lot of impossible dreams, but I still dream ‘em.” However fantastical her painting or her imagination is, this is how Inocente views the world. For Inocente, these paintings resemble real life. And however much she may have lost, she can still tap into that planet of imagination for inspiration.

The experience of watching Inocente fills the viewer with an appreciation for stability and home, for having the luxury of being able to create in a secure environment, where the next day is more or less assured. As Inocente drips and splatters paint, as she applies pigment to canvas without trepidation, the viewer can’t help but admire the audacity and the determination of such a young girl, to create without fear, and to offer a glimpse into an inspirational journey that the viewer can only hope to follow her on.

Inocente returns to New York for a screening at The Jewish Museum on December 6. The film is also available at For more information about Inocente, visit